La Jalousie (Philippe Garrel, 2013)


Paris celluloïd ! Paris numérique !

2013, for me, meant a return to Paris, a city where I had also lived, intermittently, between 2008 and 2010. Thinking of the differences in the city between now and then, the most palpable change is the effect that four uninterrupted years of economic crisis have had on the mentality of the Parisian populace: never the most jovial of peoples, the citizenry of the ville lumière has been further plunged into a deep pit of morosity by the unrelenting recession. As the happy few in bourgeois-bohemia blithely revel in their recent discovery of the delights of organic food and fair-trade coffee (unheard of in Paris five years ago), the rest of the population stares in wide-eyed terror at the abyss gaping before them. A growing number, moreover, are falling headlong into the penury that menaces all, as can be easily attested by a ride on the metro, which is increasingly coming to resemble a Brueghelesque congregation of beggars, vagrants and the indigent of all shades.

There have been other striking changes to Paris in the last half-decade, which are no doubt less grave than the privation and fear triggered by the marasmic state of the French economy, but which are worth mentioning nonetheless.

One is the proliferation of Starbucks coffee-shops, which, exceedingly rare in Paris in 2009, now seem to be present on every street corner of the inner arrondissements, their bland homogeneity an arrogant affront by corporate globalisation to Paris’s venerable café culture. The other trend – and one which is even closer to my heart than coffee – is the sweepingly comprehensive conversion from celluloid to digital projection in the capital’s plethora of cinemas.

It occurs to me that there are eerie parallels between these two phenomena. Starbucks’ corporate strategy is well-known: when the company decides to expand to a new territory, rather than being content to peacefully cohabit with its already-established competitors, it saturates the target area with an oversupply of outlets: for a while, businesses on all sides lose money, but in this war of attrition, Starbucks has the capital reserves to hold out longer than the family-owned bistros it has locked horns with, and once they go belly-up, there will only be a dense patchwork of Starbucks branches left. The results have long been visible in Manhattan, and the coffee chain’s corporate hierarchy has clearly set its sights on achieving the same dreary transformation of intra muros Paris. A similar philosophy, I contend, underpins the transition to digital projection.

The advent of the digitally-generated moving image represented a unique opportunity for aesthetic diversity in the cinema. Digital images offered an array of undeniable advantages, ranging from practical benefits to formal qualities, but the celluloid frame also had a unique look and feel that, in the case of many films, was integral to their sensorial effect. There seemed to be no reason why the two species of audiovisual production could not enduringly coexist alongside one another, with each medium playing to its specific strengths, or even productively mingle with each other, yielding a myriad of previously unimaginable composite forms. At the start of 2010, when Parisian cinemas were still almost all screening films on film, I continued to believe that such an outcome was possible. The digital image was not to be resisted outright; rather, its unique qualities should be harnessed in conjunction with those of its pellicular predecessors, whether the stateliness of 35mm, the rougher-hewn qualities of 16mm, or the pure rawness of Super-8. The perfect example of this was Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro: shot on high-resolution digital video, the film possessed a chiaroscuro aesthetic that undeniably worked within the traditions of film-based cinematography, and this was ably accentuated by the 35mm print I saw during its Parisian exclusivité. Surely such enchanting hybridities would be the upshot from the rise of digital imagery.

Looking back at my misguided optimism from the standpoint of the present-day, I can’t hope but think of my younger self as being akin to a German in 1932, desperately trying to convince themselves that everything will turn out all right in the end. To the best of my knowledge, not a single cinema screen in Paris presents first-run films on 35mm at the time I am writing these lines in early 2014. After a prolonged campaign, steered in tandem by the upper echelons of the film industry and the French cultural bureaucracy, all have converted to digital projection. Few decided to persist with dual projection facilities: the champions of the tout-numérique would have it no other way. The contemporary filmmaker still (at least for the time being) has the option of shooting on film stock, as Philippe Garrel, for instance, did with La Jalousie; but if he should desire for his film to be screened in its original format – or if, like Albert Serra with Història de la meva mort, he should decide that a film print of a digital-native work adds a valuable aesthetic quality to the end-product – he is out of luck. Outside of a select handful of repertory cinemas and cultural institutions (the Cinémathèque, of course, but also the Forum des Images and the Centre Pompidou), there is simply no option to do so.

The issue at hand is not whether one is “pro” celluloid and “anti” digital, or vice versa. Of course, it is not too hard for the reader to guess where my allegiances lie. But then I have always been drawn to seemingly lost causes: communism, film, Aston Villa... In any case, my lingering fondness (fetishism, even) for celluloid should not overly colour my views on the issue. The digital image is not inherently good or bad; it is a technique like any other. Of far greater importance are the uses to which the technique can be put.

But the notion, overwhelmingly dominant within the film industry, that all must go the way of the digital is an ideology, and it is an ideology which does not brook resistance lightly. It is not enough for digital to become yet one more option within a varied artistic palette, it must become (has become) the default, the ground rather than a figure. Rather than enabling greater choice for creators and spectators alike, it crushes choice, strangles diversity. As Godard – who can generally be relied upon for guidance in such matters – averred in his recent (digitally-shot) film Les trois désastres: the digital is a dictatorship.

That the peremptory conversion to digital has an essentially ideological, rather than practical or aesthetic, basis can be seen in the derisory manner in which its advantages are vaunted. Of course, studio accountants will unswervingly point to the economic efficiencies of digital distribution, but whether these outweigh the huge outlay required for new projection facilities is disputable, especially given the likelihood of continuing conversion costs in the future, as existing formats become progressively outmoded with alarming frequency. Indeed, it was precisely the fact that the economics did not stack up that delayed digital conversion for more than a decade after it had become technically feasible.

Others point to the fact that digital “prints” do not suffer the deterioration and degradation of their celluloid counterparts. But this, too, is a feeble argument: good preservation practices and careful projection can achieve that outcome just as well. This is not to speak of long-term archiving: is anyone sure that a DCP of La Vie d’Adèle will be screenable in ten years time, let alone a hundred? There is a reason why the Cinémathèque still demands a dépôt of every film distributed in France on 35mm (for many releases, this is probably the only print that will be struck); at present, it is the only way the film’s lasting preservation can be assured.

Rather, the main argument behind the switch to digital is simply that it represents the future. Persisting with cinematic projection –a “19th-century technology”, as we are so often reminded, as if this made it inherently suspect– is as unreasonable as continuing to ride steam trains, or sending messages by pneumatic tube. At best, it can only be the marginalised preserve of a handful of stubborn-minded crackpots, archaic Luddites to be ranked alongside Civil War recreationists and those annoying friends who refuse to join Facebook.

Nothing is as ideological as the idea of the future, and indeed, if the last few years have registered a profound cultural shift, it is, in my view, the return to a level of techno-teleological optimism not seen since the early 1960s. Now, as then, a stifling political conformism can only be made tenable by a prospective future in which technological advancement has smoothed out social contradictions. Whereas fifty years ago, however, it was the space race and atomic power that promised the emancipation of humanity from drudgery and want, now a happy future for us all is guaranteed by the algorithmic codes of the high-tech quadrumvirate of Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon (whose corporate omnipresence in our lives makes a firm like Starbucks look positively benign in comparison).

Moreover, if there is an underlying basis to the ideological equation between the digital image and the future, it is precisely the annihilation of any distinction between the image as seen on a cinema screen (in conditions which, the nature of projection aside, are nonetheless still the same as they have been for a hundred years: the paid entry, the darkened room, the immobile seat, the beam of light coming from the behind the spectators, and shining on a rectangular white canvas in front of them) and the multitude of moving images which assail us in everyday life: on TV screens, laptops, tablets, smartphones, Google glasses, and even billboards. No qualitative difference now separates the material or visual nature of any of these images. A film –whether it is directed by Michael Haneke or Michael Bay– is simply one more piece in the puzzle of what now goes by the name of the “media landscape”.

Many will no doubt think that the contours of this discussion are themselves obsolete. There is no point in agonising about the digital: the battle is over. Les jeux sont faits. We should all learn to stop worrying and love the pixel. For contemporary films, there is some truth to this. There was a period of a few years when, attending festivals, I would fret as to whether a given screening would be on 35mm or one of the variants of digital projection. That time has passed: DCP is now a fait accompli.

However, when it comes to films from the celluloid era (let’s say: up until the mid-1990s), the battlelines are still being drawn. Even a few years ago, the idea that screening a film shot using celluloid on an alternative format represented an “authentic” viewing experience for the spectator was not taken seriously by anyone in archives, cinémathèques and repertory theatres. Now, in the wake of a plethora of digital restorations of “film classics”, the practice has become commonplace, above all in Paris, with its unrivalled density of réprise screenings and its universal adoption of 2K projection1.

Of course, those in charge of the digital restoration of films will point to their unrivalled fidelity to the original work, vastly superior to the battered 35mm prints that had previously been circulating. Permit me to remain sceptical. There is a deep corruption at the heart of film restoration, which rests on two fundamental lies, the hypocrisy of which is exacerbated by the rise of new digital restoration techniques.

The first is the illusion that we can know what the “original work” looked like with any degree of certainty; in fact, when it comes to matters such as colour saturation, contrast and grain, we can at best make educated guesses, relying either on the inherent faultiness of human memory or source images whose own ontological status is as questionable as the film in need of restoring. An unrestored print, by contrast, may have suffered a certain amount of deterioration, but it will at least retain an organic link with the original that is irrevocably severed when the digital technician’s various photoshop techniques are applied to the film’s images.

The second is the idea that a film should only ever be equated with this mythical Urtext –that is, what the film looked like on its first screening, or, even more untenably, what the filmmaker would have wanted the film to look like on its debut outing. But this is to adopt a spuriously demiurgic notion of auteurism. A film is not simply the product of an artist’s imagination, it is the trace of a struggle between the filmmaker and the material elements he has to contend with during the creation of the work. Not only do these elements invariably resist the intentions of the director, often to salutary effect, but, even after the film has been completed, they will continue to evolve and mutate. Like a fine wine, the print of a film can improve with age, it can gain a richness and flavour absent in the work’s original condition. The goal of the digital restoration, however, is to obliterate this metamorphosis, and return the work to a fantasy-image of what it once was in its ostensibly virginal state2.

Moreover, a film (in the pre-digital sense) is not a singular work, but a multiplicity of texts equal to the number of prints struck. Each copy – particularly when it comes to films from the early period of the cinema, before the solidification of reliable archival practices – will have different qualities, ranging from nuanced variances in colour and hue to striking inconsistencies in structure and content. It is precisely one of the joys of the globetrotting cinephile to compare and contrast the different prints they may come across, to familiarise themselves with the respective strengths and weaknesses of the MoMA print of Caligari, as opposed to the Cinémathèque print, the Deutsche Kinemathek print, or the Vienna Filmmuseum print, and to periodically revisit these copies to see how they hold up as the years take their toll. Each of these radically different prints has its own institutional history embedded in it, but now that a 100% definitive, digital restoration of Caligari has been completed – as if there could possibly be a definitive version of a notorious cinematic shapeshifter – it seems we will no longer be privy to the marks of such historical aleae.

As such, my filmgoing habits in the Paris of 2013-14 are markedly different to those in the Paris of 2009-10. Whereas five years ago I still viewed the restoration of a film as being of benefit to the viewing experience, and went to screenings unconcerned about the nature of the print I was to watch, I now studiously avoid new restorations as much as I can, no matter how much their qualities are vaunted by the archives and institutes peddling them. The restoration of a film now means, for me, that the work is effectively dead. I might revisit it some time in the future, but there is no rush, given that it has been preserved in situ, like the formaldehyde-soused corpse of a deceased dictator. Instead, I roam around the backlots of the repertory circuit, foraging in the deeper recesses of Cinémathèque retrospectives and the round-the-clock programming of venues like the Action-Christine, the Desperado or the Filmothèque du Quartier Latin, seeking out those films that are still presented on 35mm, on gloriously unrestored prints. The worse the condition of the print, the more it is scratched, faded, warped, riddled with missing frames, threatening to snap inside the projector at any given moment, the more I take delight in it, the more I savour the enigmatic tonalities that emanate from its emulsion. For it is there that I can have a sense of the living, breathing history of the cinema.


1 This can be the start of a slippery slope: if projecting Rashomon on DCP is fine, then why not Blu-Ray (there’s not that much of a difference between the formats). And if Blu-Ray, why not DVD? And if DVD, why even go to the cinema? This is exactly the fate that befell the Accatone, a unique institution in the Latin Quarter that, week in, week out, screened the same repertoire of 30-40 films by Antonioni, Fassbinder, Pasolini (of course), and company. How great was my disenchantment when, passing through Paris in 2012, I dropped in to the Accatone to catch a screening of Oedipus Rex – which had been screening there on 35mm for decades – only for the film to be shown on DVD, the séance capped off by the disc returning to its start menu and playing a 30-second snippet of music from the film on loop. Within months, the Accatone had closed its doors, and is now an art et essai cinema like any other. As a result, the weekly offering of repertory films in Paris is perceptibly more meagre than it once was.

2 This is not to mention the fact that – particularly when it comes to colour grading – so many restorations wildly overcompensate for the supposed deficiencies of existing prints, and create luridly oversaturated images that bear little resemblance to the original work, but that will at least convince donors that the decision to restore the film was worth all the time and money after all.